GAO: Report Says Older Persons Hit Hard by Student Loan Debt

Published in Pawtucket Times, September 19, 2014

By Herb Weiss

In her late 20s, Janet Lee Dupree took out a $ 3,000 student loan to help finance her undergraduate degree. While acknowledging that she did not pay off the student loan when she should have, even paying thousands of dollars on this debt, today the 72-year-old, still owes a whopping $15,000 because of compound interest and penalties. The Ocala, Florida resident, in poor health, will never pay off this student loan especially because all she can afford to pay is the $50 the federal government takes out of her Social Security check each month.

Citing Dupree’s financial problems in her golden years in his opening remarks at a Senate Panel hearing in Room 562 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL), of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, used his legislative bully pulpit to dispel the myth that student loan debt only happens to young students. “Well, as it turns out, that’s increasingly not the case,” he said.

Student Loan Debt Impacts Seniors, Too

But, last week’s Senate Aging panel hearing also put the spot light on fifty seven-year-old Rosemary Anderson, a witness who traveled from Watsonville, California, to inside Washington’s Beltway, detailing her student loan debt. Anderson remarked how she had accumulated a $126,000 loan debt (initially $64,000) to pay for her bachelor’s and master’s degree. A divorce, health problems combined with an underwater home mortgage kept her from paying anything on her student loan for eight years.

Anderson told Senate Aging panel members that with new terms to paying off her student loan debt, she expects to pay $526 a month for 24 years to settle the defaulted loan, setting her debt at age 81. The aging baby boomer will ultimately pay $87,487 more than her original student loan amount.

Like Anderson, a small but growing percentage of older Americans who are delinquent in paying off their student debts worry about their Social Security benefits garnished, drastically cutting their expected retirement income.

According to a 22 page Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Inability to Repay Student Loans May Affect Financial Security of a Small Percentage of Retirees,” released at the Sept. 10 Senate panel hearing, the amount that older Americans owe in outstanding federal student loans has increased six-fold, from $2.8 billion in 2005 to more than $18 billion last year. Student loan debt for all ages totals $ 1 trillion.

The GAO report noted that student loan debt reduces net worth and income, eroding the older person’s retirement security.

Nelson observed, “Large amounts of any kind of debt can put a person’s finances at risk, but I think that Ms. Dupree’s story shows that student debt has real consequences for those in or near retirement. And, the need to juggle debt on a fixed income may increase the likelihood of student loan default.”

Although the newly released GAO report acknowledged that seniors account for a small fraction of student loan debt holders, it noted that the numbers of seniors facing student loan debt between 2004 and 2010 had quadrupled to 706,000 households. Roughly 80 percent of the student loan debt held by retirement-aged Americans was for their own education, while only 20 percent of loans were taken out went to help finance a child or dependent’s education, the report said.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who sits on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, acknowledges that student loan debt is a burden for thousands of Rhode Islanders, including a growing number of retirement-age borrowers who either took out student loans as young adults, or when they changed careers, or helped pay off a child’s education. “Student debt presents unique challenges to these older borrowers, who risk garnishment of Social Security benefits, accrual of interest, and additional penalties if they are forced to default,” says Whitehouse, stressing that pursuing an education should not result in a lifetime of debt.

Whitehouse sees the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act, which would allow approximately 88,000 Rhode Islanders to refinance existing student loans at the low rates that were available in 2013-2014, as a legislative fix to help those who have defaulted on paying off their student loans. “By putting money back in the pockets of Rhode Islanders we can help individual borrowers make important long-term financial decisions that will ultimately benefit the economy as a whole,” he says.

Garnishing Social Security

The GAO reports finds that student loan debt has real consequences for those in or near retirement The need to juggle debt on a fixed income may increase the likelihood of student loan default. In 2013, the U.S. Department of the Treasury garnished the Social Security retirement and survivor benefits of 33,000 people to recoup federal student loan debt. When the government garnishes a Social Security check, multiple agencies can levy fees in addition to the amount collected for the debt, making it even more challenging for seniors to pay off their loan.

Ranking Member, Susan M. Collins (R-ME) Ranking, on the Senate Panel, warned [because of a 1998 law] seniors with defaulted student loans may even see their Social Security checks slashed to see their Social Security check to $750 a month, a floor set by Congress in 1998. “This floor was not indexed for inflation, and is now far below the poverty line, adds Collins, who says she plans to introduce legislation shortly to adjust this floor for inflation and index it going forward, to make sure garnishment does not force seniors into poverty.

According to an analysis of government data detailed on the CNNMoney website, “More than 150,000 older Americans had their Social Security checks docked last year for delinquent student loans.”

Unlike other types of consumer debt, student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. Besides docking Social Security, the federal government can use a variety of ways to collect delinquent student loans, specifically docking wages or taking tax refund dollars. These strategies also cutting the income of the older person.

Some Final Thoughts…

“It’s very important that we focus on the big picture and the implications in play,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell, noting that “Education debt is becoming a significant factor for younger workers in preparing for retirement, delaying the ability of people to retire and threatening a middle-class standard of living, both before and after they retire.

Connell says, “Its serious concern for some older Americans as approximately 6.9 million carry student loan debt – some dating back to their youth. But others took on new debt when they returned to school later in life and many others have co-signed for loans with their children or grandchildren to help them deal with today’s skyrocketing college costs.”

“It’s not just a matter of Federal student loan debt being garnished from Social Security payments if it has not been repaid, “ Connell added. “Outstanding federal debt also will disqualify an older borrower from eligibility for a federally- insured reverse mortgage.

“Families need to know the costs and understand the long-term burden of having to repay large amounts of student loan debt,” Connell concluded. “They also need information regarding the value of education, hiring rates for program graduates and the likely earnings they may expect.”

Finally, Sandy Baum, senior fellow with the Urban Institute, warns people to think before they borrow. “They should borrow federal loans, not private loans, she says, recommending that if their payments are more than they can afford, they should enroll in income-based repayment.

Addressing student loan debt issues identified by the GAO report, Baum suggests that Congress might ease the restrictions on discharging student loans in bankruptcy, and end garnishment of Social Security payment for student debt. Lawmakers could also strengthen income-based repayment, making sure that they don’t give huge benefits to people with graduate student debt and relatively high incomes.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

New Report Warns of Nation’s Housing Not Meeting Needs of Older Adults

Published in Pawtucket Times, on September 12, 2014

In the coming decades, America’s aging population is expected to skyrocket, but the nation is not ready to confront the housing needs of those age 50 and over, warns a new report released last week by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies and AARP Foundation. While it is expected that the number of adults in the U.S. aged 50 and over is expected to grow to 133 million by 2030, an increase of more than 70 percent since 2000, housing that is affordable, physically accessible, well-located, and coordinated with supports and services is in too short supply, says the Harvard report released on Sept. 2.

According to Harvard Report, Housing America’s Older Adults – Meeting the Needs of An Aging Population, housing stock is critical to quality of life for people of all ages, but especially for aging baby boomers and seniors.  High housing costs currently force a third of adults 50 and over—including 37 percent of those 80 and over—to pay more than 30 percent of their income for homes that may or may not fit their needs, forcing them to cut back on food, health care, and, for those 50-64, retirement savings.

 Challenges and Issues

The Harvard report also noted that much of the nation’s housing stock lacks basic accessibility features (such as no-step entries, extra-wide doorways and lever-style door and faucet handles, and insufficient lighting, preventing older persons with disabilities from living safely and comfortably at home. Moreover, walkways, bike lanes, buses, subways, and other public transportation are not available to a majority of older adults who live in suburban and rural locations.  They become isolated from family and friends without the ability to drive.   Finally, disconnects between housing programs and the health care system put many older adults with disabilities or long-term care needs at risk of premature, costly institutionalization and readmission to hospitals.

“Recognizing the implications of this profound demographic shift and taking immediate steps to address these issues is vital to our national standard of living,” says Chris Herbert, acting managing director of the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. “While it is ultimately up to individuals and their families to plan for future housing needs, it is also incumbent upon policy makers at all levels of government to see that affordable, appropriate housing, as well as supports for long-term aging in the community, are available for older adults across the income spectrum.”

*Tackling the Challenges

“What jumped out at us from this study is that when it comes to where people want to live as they age, the ‘field of view,’ if you will, has very quickly widened. People today are thinking about this at a younger age with expectations that are vastly different from their parents’ assumptions,” observes AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Most people are worried that retirement savings will not cover their long-term needs. They want housing that is affordable, physically accessible and well-located. But they also realize that, eventually, they’ll need coordination with supports and services. The challenges have never been more evident.

“There are many ways to approach this, with choosing healthier lifestyles very high on the list. But the report makes it clear that where we live matters,” Connell continued. “Growing older in car-dependent suburban and rural locations is a real problem because pedestrian infrastructure is generally unfriendly if you have stopped driving. That leads to isolation, which can severely compound just about any negative that comes with aging. And if access to the health care system is restricted, many older adults – especially those with disabilities – are candidates for more costly premature institutionalization. We need to pre-empt that cycle by building communities where people can better age in place

The Harvard report notes that the older population in the U.S. will continue to exponentially grow with the large number of younger baby boomers who are now in their 50s. With lower incomes, wealth, homeownership rates, and more debt than generations before them, members of this large age group may be unable to cover the costs of appropriate housing or long-term care in their retirement years.

Indeed, while a majority of people over 45 would like to stay in their current residences as long as possible, estimates indicate that 70 percent of those who reach the age of 65 will eventually need some form of long-term care. In this regard, older homeowners are in a better position than older renters when they retire. The typical homeowner age 65 and over has enough wealth to cover the costs of in-home assistance for nearly nine years or assisted living for 6 and half years. The typical renter, however, can only afford two months of these supports.

“As Americans age, the need for safe and affordable housing options becomes even more critical,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of the AARP Foundation. “High housing costs, aging homes, and costly repairs can greatly impact those with limited incomes. The goal in our support of this report is to address the most critical needs of these households and it is AARP Foundation’s aim to provide the tools and resources to help them meet these needs now and in the future.”

Making Your Community Livable

Even with this alarming report that calls on policy makers to confront the looming housing crisis for the nation’s old, a large majority of aging boomers have not reached the age where their housing needs become a serious problem.  For those choosing to age in place in their community they can plan ahead to improve their future housing options.

“AARP is committed to this because we know it’s what most people want. That’s why we encourage residents to participate in how streets, roads, sidewalks, crosswalks are designed as well as make their thoughts known on decisions regarding access to recreational space.”

On Sept. 19, AARP Rhode Island will host an Active Living Workshop at Kirkbrae Country Club in Lincoln. Nationally recognized expert Dan Burden will lead the event, which will focus on proposed improvements along New River Road in Lincoln – specifically in the village of Manville. Representatives of the RI Department of Transportation will be on hand to discuss the project and hear suggestions to make this neighborhood more walkable. Mr. Burden will conduct a sidewalks and streets survey, followed by a discussion. The one day event, involving both a classroom style session and a community walking audit, is free and includes breakfast and lunch. You can sign up by logging on to www. aarp.org/ri. Or, you can call Deborah Miller at 401-248-2654.

According to AARP Rhode Island, the goals of this bring together residents, government and elected officials to promote a shared language.

Groups invited to participate include Lincoln town officials, Lincoln Senior Services, the Bicycle Coalition, the Lincoln Police Department, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, GrowSmart, the RI Department of Health and the Northern RI Chamber of Commerce.

To access Housing America’s Older Adults – Meeting the Needs of An Aging Population, go to http://www.jchs.harvard.edu/housing-americas-older-adults-embargoed.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Throughout the Years at the Pawtucket Arts Festival

Published in Pawtucket Times, September 5, 2015

It was over 16 years ago when Kristine Kilmartin married Pawtucket Rep. Peter Kilmartin. The Smithfield native had lived in the city for a few months and. while she was driving through Slater Memorial Park in January 1999 with her new husband, she asked, “Why doesn’t the City take more advantage of its green space?” She wondered why Pawtucket couldn’t plan an event like the Scituate Arts Festival in its vast 209-acre park.

Ultimately, the Kilmartins turned to Mayor James E. Doyle with the idea of creating an arts festival. The green light was given and the work began. After a month of meetings, discussion and planning, the City’s 18-person committee kicked off its first arts festival in June 1999.

“It is hard to believe that 16 Pawtucket Arts Festivals have gone by so fast,” says Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, who has served as an honorary co-chair with his wife, Kristine, since its inception. “When we began in 1999, there was a lot of uncertainty about the event’s success and longevity, as with any new venture,” recalls the lawyer and former Pawtucket police officer. My how the Pawtucket Arts Festival has grown.

Kilmartin remembers the Opening Gala was scarcely attended. However, the organizers were not discouraged, he says. “Everyone involved felt we had a good product, and as long as we stuck with it we would be successful,” he added.

Over the years city officials and many dedicated volunteers continued to work hard, he notes, stressing that it “now feels like the Pawtucket Arts Festival is a permanent part of our community.”

With the diversity and quality of programming over 16 years, Kilmartin finds it hard to single out one particular favorite event. But, when pressed by this tenacious columnist, he admits, “We enjoyed the Philharmonic in the Park and the Dragon Boat races,” noting that these two signature events provide “great family fun.”

Looking forward, the fifty-two-year-old lifelong Pawtucket resident believes that new forms of community outreach must happen to attract more people to the festival, this being vital for the Arts Festival’s continued growth and future success. The Attorney General also calls for the broadening of the artistic diversity and ethnicity of its programming, keeping the month-long Arts Festival “fresh.”

A Look Back: Just a Small Sampling

Since 1999, Pawtucket’s Arts Festival organizers have created a citywide showcase of visual and performing arts, interactive workshops, music, theatre and dance performances. Where else could you enjoy a wide variety of music, from blues, jazz, Zydeco, classical, folk, and even pops? Over the years 50,000 people came to listen to the Rhode Island Philharmonic Pop Orchestra, the event concluding with a dazzling firework show over the park’s pond.

Over 15 years, what a listing of musical groups that have played the Pawtucket Arts Festival. World famous Jazz artists Dave McKenna, Scott Hamilton and Gray Sargent, Grammy-nominated Duke Robillard, the internationally acclaimed “Ambassador to the Blues,” and Consuelo and Chuck Sherba’s Aurea, a performance ensemble thrilled the audiences. Many came to dance to the tunes of French-Canadian Conrad Depot, Celtic group Pendragon, folk musicians Atwater & Donnelly and Plain Folk to name a few. Many of these groups appeared on the stages at Slater Mill’s Ethnic and Labor Festival and the Stone Soup Coffee House at Slater Memorial Park or at the folk group’s home venue at St. Paul’s Parish House.

Both young and old alike enjoyed watching the Big Nazo Puppets, clowns or listening to story tellers, including Mark Binder and Valerie Tutson. Parents and their children even packed Shea High School’s auditorium to watch the incredible Dan Butterworth’s Marionette show.

And where else could your children learn the art of making glass, raku pottery or carving stone and wood? Of course, at the City’s Arts Festival. Children workshops, led by Lee Segal, taught tile painting. Youngsters learned how to create sculptures out of junk pulled from the Blackstone River. Only in the City of the “Industrial Revolution” if you had attended one of our art festivals over the last 15 years.

Every year at the City’s Festival Pier thousands of spectators have lined up along the Seekonk River to watch the Dragon Boat races. Art lovers visited one-of-a kind exhibits in art galleries and artist studios throughout Pawtucket. Those attending the City’s Arts Festival watched performances by the Everett Dance Theatre, Fusionworks, Cadence Dance Project, and great plays at the Sandra Gamm Feinstein Theatre, Mixed Magic Theater and Community Player. Film buffs came to meet writers and filmmakers at the Pawtucket Film Festival, questioning these individuals about their film-making techniques.

For movie buffs, Pawtucket-based Mirror Image, has organized its Pawtucket Film Festival for over 15 years in the 100-seat theater in the City’s Visitor Center. Rhode Islander Michael Corrente was one of the more notable film makers who accepted an invitation to attend, and many others followed. The film organizers even brought the internationally-acclaimed Alloy Orchestra to perform a live, original score for Man With a Movie Camera at Tolman High School.

You were also able to watch classic films at other Arts Festival venues, too. One year dozens came to watch Cinema Paradiso (with English subtitles) by Giuseppe Tornatore, projected on the walls of a mill building on Exchange Street, with live music.

Hundreds also gathered at Slater Park to watch chain saw-toting environmental artist and sculptor Michael Higgins Billy Rebele create pieces of artwork on salvaged tree stumps.

While focusing on bringing artistic and musical events, festival organizers did not forget to bring public art into the City. In 15 years, six permanent sculptures were donated to the City of Pawtucket. An original oil painting of the Hope Webbing Mill in Pawtucket, painted by internationally-recognized Artist Gretchen Dow-Simpson, was purchased and donated to the City in 2004, and is now showcased in the Mayor’s Office.

Some Pawtucket Arts Festival Trivia…

As Kilmartin remembered, the first opening gala, held in the City library is 1999 attracted a small crowd, around 35 people. At the end of the evening each person was given Ronzio pizzas to take home. Last year we saw over 2,000 people gather at this long awaited opening event. Crowds at the Dragon Boat races have also held steady over the years, bringing thousands to the City’s Festival Pier. For over a decade, over 6,000 people have attended the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra Concert in Slater Memorial Park. The Pawtucket Teachers’ Alliance, with their very generous $15,000 donation continue to make this event happen.

For 15 years, Patricia Zacks, of the Providence-based Camera Werks and lifelong Pawtucket resident, has organized a photo contest at every arts festival, which includes participation from students from Pawtucket Public Schools, where winning photos are judged by some of the State’s top recognized photographers select their favorite photos that will appear in the City of Pawtucket’s Photo Calendar. Thousands of Pawtucket students also learned the art of photography from Zacks and over 180 scenes of Pawtucket have appeared in these calendars.

During these years, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in Boston also sponsored the Chinese performances that were held throughout the day of the Dragon Boat races. Pawtucket’s annual race is now being promoted nationally by other Dragon Boat festivals. In its second year, in 2000, the Dragon Boat races second year, American Airlines donated 18 free round trip tickets to Taiwan to the winning boat, an estimated value of $60,000. This year the winning professional team will take home $10,000, while the local team winner will receive $5,000.

In the early years trolley tours led by Zacks of the Pawtucket Arts Collaborative and Len Lavoie, of RICIR, initially organized trips to mill buildings throughout the City. Because of these trolley tours, at least two couples have relocated to Pawtucket to live in mill lofts in the City’s historic downtown. The trolley tours, showcasing Pawtucket artist’s one-of-a-kind works, would later be replaced by XOS- Exchange Street Open Studios and Arts Market Place Pawtucket at the historic Pawtucket Armory.

In 2005, from an idea sparked by then program chair, Patricia Zacks and community activist and Stone Soup President, Richard Walton, led them to meet with Paw-Sox executives to ‘go big’ which set off a series of acts to perform at McCoy Stadium beginning in 2006. These artists included: Bob Dylan, (twice), John Mellencamp, Counting Crows, Drop Kick Murph’s; Kenny Loggins and the Boston Pops Orchestra; Further and Willie Nelson.

Since 1999 the steady growth of participating artists, corporate sponsors, volunteers and attendees indicate quality programming and a well-managed event that has become a permanent fixture in the Pawtucket community. Over 16 years, the Pawtucket Arts Festival has awakened the pride of Pawtucket’s residents and continues to stimulate the creative energies of its artist community, and have an economic impact on the City.

Chair John Baxter and his hard working Board of Directors (Rich Waltrous, Keith Fayan, Lori-Ann Gagne and this columunist), Arts Festival Manager Joe Giocastro, Artistic Director Mary Lee Partington, and Volunteer Coordinators Patricia Zacks and Paul Audette, prepare to unveil this year’s Arts Festival tonight at the Blackstone River Party/Taste of Pawtucket at 6 p.m. at Slater Mill. Let the show begin. See you there.

For a complete event listings go to http://www.pawtucketartsfestival.org, or 1-800-454-2882.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, medical and health care issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com. He serves as the Pawtucket’s Economic & Cultural Affairs officer and sits of the Board of Directors of Pawtucket Arts Festival.

Gubernatorial Candidates Go Negative to Get Votes

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 22, 2014

With less than three weeks before the September 9th Democratic primary, gubernatorial candidates are working overtime to get their political message out by mailed campaign literature and bombarding the airways with their 30 second commercials and at debates.

As primary day quickly approaches, political new comer Clay Pell is staying on message in his campaign literature and television ads, claiming he has a “real plan” to fix Rhode Island’s problems, even claiming that he will bring a “real plan” and a “fresh perspective” to the Governor’s Office if he is elected. On the other hand, Mayor Angel Taveras and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo duke it out to take the lead. Taveras even takes pop shots at Pell as more voters begin to support him.

From the start, Businessman Ken Block and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung took off their gloves and began negatively blasting teach other in their campaign literature, TV ads and even at debates. Block was not a real Republican who had voted for Democratic President Barack Obama, he even supported his new ObamaCare program. On the other hand, Block went after Fung’s handling of Cranston’s ticketgate, calling him a political insider.

Yes, as my good friend long-time Pawtucket resident Jon Anderson says, “it’s the silly season of politics.” Like it or not, negative campaigns are here to stay and they do work, say political pundits

Poll Numbers Shifting

Just as summer began, Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates began to get negative and the numbers began to shift.

According to an exclusive WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll, released two days ago, of 503 likely Rhode Island Democratic primary voters, Raimondo takes the lead at 32%, Taveras drops to 27%. Pell is closing in at 26%, the poll shows, conducted by Joe Fleming, of Fleming & Associates of Cumberland, Rhode Island. One percent of the voters give Todd Giroux their support. Only 13% of the respondents remain undecided.

Last May, a previous WPRI 12/Providence Journal poll showed a politically-unknown Pell had support of 12% of those polled. Huge infusions of his personal wealth on TV ad purchase and campaign outreach has ratcheted up his visibility. At that time, Taveras was in the lead with 33%, Raimondo at 29%. With a larger campaign war chest than the Mayor, she was able to chip away at his lead by focusing the voters on his City’s economic woes and spike in crime.

As to the Republican primary race, the universe of Republican voters is so small there are no public polls, says Chairman Mark Smiley, Rhode Island Republican Party. He notes that the Fung and Block campaigns are doing their own internal polling.

Negative Campaigning Works…

Negative campaigning works, says Wendy Schiller, Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Brown University. In his book, Defense of Negativity, Vanderbilt Professor John Greer found that “not only do negative ads work to undermine the opponent, they also convey information about candidates,” notes Schiller.

“Even when an ad is completely negative, it almost always contains some element of truth to it about the opponent’s record or positions, adds Schiller, a frequent guest of Rhode Island PBS’s “A Lively Experiment.”

Schiller gives her assessment of the Block-Fung race. “Because Ken Block was formerly a moderate, he has the most pressure to jump into his race with energy and aggression and undermine the perceived front runner Mayor Allan Fung,” she says, noting that he may have well been successful in doing that at a time when the police scandal in Cranston was unfolding and now more recently, with the filming of an expensive ad in Ohio instead of being created in Rhode Island

“Fung has fought back by criticizing Blocks proposal’s and his lack of elected experience, but his first negative ad on Blockheads was perceived to insult Block supporters more than Block himself, so they pulled it, notes Schiller.

As to the Taveras-Raimondo contest, Schiller believes the Mayor had to go negative against his opponent because she was criticizing him for higher taxes and the rising crime rate in Providence, noting that of these candidates went negative on Pell’s inexperience. It was a mistake because they did not want to give him status as a contender but it allowed him to shape his own reputation among voters with unchallenged TV ads, she says.

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Schiller says that negative TV ads can backfire. “I think overly negative – or too much distortion of a record – can backfire more in Rhode Island because we are such a small state that most folks can spot an exaggeration when they see it,” she observes.

“We are already seeing Taveras go more negative on both Raimondo and Pell so expect to continue [in the upcoming weeks before the primary], adds Schiller. She predicts that the General Treasurer will “likely stay positive in effort to pull a few more voters from the undecided camps into her vote column. She says that Pell has responded to Taveras negative ads in a limited way, and expects him to stay above the negative fray in hopes of pulling votes from the other two Democratic candidates.

Can a political candidate win an election by not going negative? It depends on where you are in your campaign, says Schiller. For instance, a while back Raimondo went negative on Taveras, but only continues to do so in debates, not so much on TV ads. Pell thinks a positive strategy is also a winning strategy while Taveras is now on the attack. “We will just have to wait and see on primary night who wins,” she says.

Watching the Political Tumble from the Side Lines

From inside the Beltway, Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, watches his former state’s gubernatorial races and gives this columnist his observations.

“The Ocean State’s GOP primary turned negative early in the campaign because it is only a two-person race. In this situation, once one candidate goes negative, the other person has to defend himself and go on the attack too,” says West, a former Brown University professor and a prominent Rhode Island political commentator, noting the complexity of negative advertising in three-person races. “If two candidates go negative, that sometimes benefits the third candidate who has stuck with a positive message,” he says.

West speculates as to Taveras’ use of negative TV ads. “Taveras has a problem on both flanks. Raimondo is more moderate while Pell is more progressive. So the Mayor went negative to prevent vote erosion on both sides of the political spectrum. His strategy hasn’t bought him much support and he has lost ground to Pell in the most recent poll, he says.

West agrees with Schiller that negative ads can backfire. “Negative ads can backfire if the candidate is seen as mean-spirited and overly negative. That can redound to the benefit of the candidate who has stayed positive,” he adds.

Look for more nasty TV ads in the upcoming weeks, says West. You often see more negativity as you get closer to election day. With the margin of victory very close among the Democratic candidates, that primary runs the risk of turning into a slugfest in its closing days,” he says.

Finally, West says that positive ads might push a political candidate to victory. “Candidates can win by staying positive in a three-way race. Lack of negativity becomes a distinguishing factor with the other two candidates, he notes.

Your Vote Counts

Historically, older voters from across the country have played a major role in electing political candidates because they consistently-voted in larger percentages than other age groups. The political fate of Rhode Island’s statewide and congressional elections and ballot initiatives may well rest on the shoulders of aging baby boomers and senior voters.

By now, the Ocean State’s political candidates have mailed campaign literature, debated, attended debates and gatherings, hoping to effectively deliver their political messages and ultimately influence their vote.

While negative ads may sway voters, take control of who you will vote for at the upcoming primary. Spend the next three weeks to read between the lines of campaign literature and negative ads, learning more about a candidate’s background and issues. You must separate political rhetoric and negative innuendoes from the substance of issues. Put time into determining who can best represent your interests.

If political candidates do not know the power of the educated voters, hopefully they will after the polls close at 8:00 p.m. on September 9th.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

Comic Robin Williams’ Death Puts Spotlight on Depression, Suicide

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 15, 2014

Last Monday evening, millions of Americans were shocked to hear that 63-year- old Robin Williams died from an apparent suicide. While it was well-known that he had a history of severe depression and years of alcohol and drug addiction, we were stunned by the unexpected tragic news. publically, Williams had it all, fame, fortune, loyal friends, and fans in every corner of the globe. But like millions of Americans he suffered in silence trying to slay his personal demons when he went into substance abuse treatment.

The sudden death of this Oscar-winning actor, recognized as America’s comic genius, squarely puts the spotlight on depression, a mental illness that commonly afflicts tens of millions of Americans.

DDepression Becomes a Public Conversation

Within the first 48 hours of Williams’ suicide The Samaritans of Rhode Island saw an increase in calls from people concerned about loved ones and friends, says Executive Director Denise Panichas, who expects to also see an increase in visits to her Pawtucket-based nonprofit’s website. Last year, its website received more than 50,000 visitors.

Panichas says, “William’s death reinforces the fact that suicide knows no boundaries, it being a relentless demon afflicting both rich or poor, and those having access to therapy or medical care and those not having it.

According to the Woonsocket resident, William’s suicide has raised the awareness of suicide prevention in a way that millions of dollars in public health announcements could never have done. “William’s movies as well as his dedication to community service resonate with multiple generations, says Panichas, stressing that his six plus decades had value “which will live on.”

Williams substance abuse problems also highlights the need for more awareness as to how addictions can be a risk factor for depression and suicide, states Panichas, who observes that throughout the country, in ever city and town, budgets for substance abuse treatment are being decimated, she adds.

“Promoting wellness and preventing addictions will always be a big challenge but we must do more if we want to see a decrease in suicides,” says Panichas.

Panichas expects the death of Williams, an internationally acclaimed movie star, will have an impact on fundraising for suicide prevention or addiction and depression prevention programs. She has seen an increase in donations from Rhode Islanders as well as from around the country. .

“One donor gave a donation in memory of “Mork”. The donations coming in may be small but every one counts toward keeping our programs available to the public,” says Panichas, noting that over the years public funding has “been drying up.” The Samaritans of RI is using more creative fundraising structures, like crowdfunding (www.crowdrise.com/samaritansri2014) and other social venture sites to create new revenue streams for her nonprofit, she adds.

An Illness That Can Affect Anyone

Lisa B. Shea, MD, Medical Director of Providence-based Butler Hospital, Providence, learned of William’s suicide by a CNN alert on her IPhone. To the board- certified psychiatrist who serves as a clinical associate professor at Brown University’s Alpbert Medical School, “it was tragic but preventable.”

Shea, a practicing psychiatrist for 20 years, notes that people who have suicidal thoughts, like Williams, are struggling with mental health disorders. “Their thinking can get very dark and narrow and they believe they have no options,” she says, oftentimes feeling like a burden to others. “It does not matter who you are mental illness can strike any one regardless of their wealth and fame,” she says.

According to Shea, the public’s interest in William’s tragic death sheds light on the fact that people can get help and it begins with taking a positive first step. “People with suicidal thoughts, who feel “intensely tortured and can not see any way out of their situation, can benefit from supportive therapeutic relationships, medications, and getting support from family and friends who can push them into getting professional help,” she says.

Shea calls on Congress and Rhode Island state lawmakers to positively respond to the William’s suicide by providing increased funding to create access to treatment and prevention programs and to support mental health research.

Finally, Shea says that there are a number of tell-tale signs of a person expressing hopelessness who may be thinking of ending their life. They include statements made by someone that others are better off if he or she were not around; excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs; not taking care of yourself; and giving away personal items. When these occur, talk to the person telling them that you care about them and are concerned for their well-being.

Adds Melinda Kulish, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist/Clinical Neuropsychologist and Instructor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, “There are also times when depression is not easily recognizable. Some people who are depressed experience it most acutely when by themselves but can appear fine, even quite happy, when they are with other people.”

Kulish explains that, for various reasons, some people feel the need to make others happy. Cheering others up or making others laugh makes them also feel happy.

“But, if that person is suffering from depression, the happiness is fleeting – the laughter ends and they once again feel empty and sad. The cheering up of others is a fix that is OUTSIDE, not inside of them.

“And drugs and alcohol can make them feel better for a time. The high always ends, and when alone, they feel empty and even more depressed,” says Kulish. “There’s really good research to suggest that talking about traumatic and upsetting events leads to much healthier responses. The old idea, ‘I’m just not going to talk about it so it’ll go away’ doesn’t work.”

“It’s a myth that if you ask a person if they are suicidal you will put that idea in their heads,” says Shea.

Feeling Low, a Place to Call

When this happens, “feeling low with nowhere to turn” as noted singer songwriter Bill Withers once said in a public service announcement, there is a place to call – The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the desperate and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 500,000 calls and trained more 1,380 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, chapters can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its website.

Executive Director Panichas, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis. Conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking. Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders.

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

In 2014, The Samaritans of Rhode Island received more than 4,000 calls and hosted more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website,http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, its Art Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go tohttp://www.samaritansri.org.

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll-free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

For mental health resources, go to http://www.butler.org.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.

Documentary Takes a Look at Speed Dating for Seniors

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 9, 2014

Three years ago, a personal story would lead filmmaker Steven Loring to zero in on a topic for his MFA thesis film while studying at the Social Documentary Film Program in NYC’s School of Visual Arts. His thesis ultimately grew into a 78-minute documentary, “The Age of Love,” which follows the adventures of 30 seniors who sign up for a speed dating event exclusively for 70- to 90-year-olds. The film premieres at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, Sunday, August 10, at 12:15 p.m. at the Paff Theatre at URI, 80 Washington Street, Providence. And there’s a special offer for anyone who comes to the box office with a date: When you buy one ticket, your date gets in FREE! Any date! Any age!

The story took shape after the passing away of Loring’s father in 2008 left his still-vibrant mother alone after being married to her soul mate for nearly half a century. At that same time, his 80-year old uncle, who’d never even dated, to Loring’s amazement suddenly fell madly in love with an 80-year-old woman, both acting like love-struck teenagers.

“It was like they were in high school again,” Loring says, noting that the couple walked around holding hands and that he even found their bedroom door shut when he visited.

These events pushed the Brooklyn-based filmmaker to take a look at relationships in one’s later years. His research efforts revealed that the nation’s media had neglected issues involving seniors’ emotional and intimate needs. On the internet, he found that speed dating for seniors was a newly emerging trend which had occurred in a few communities in Florida and Colorado. Ultimately, a speed dating event in Rochester, New York would give him the perfect place to explore and document and come away with new insights into the issue.

Loring’s efforts to reconcile two dynamically opposite life experiences, losing a long-term intimate relationship and suddenly finding one at an advanced age, led the graduate student to finally formulate this thesis question, “Do decades of life and loss constrict our hearts, or might time develop them in unexpected ways,” That’s the question the 51-year-old filmmaker attempts to answer in his film project.

Speed Dating for Seniors

Loring’s documentary, a winner of the 2013 Paley Center DocFest Pitch Competition and recently awarded a prestigious Fledgling Fund social engagement grant, follows the amusing and emotional adventures of the seniors who signed up for the Rochester speed dating event, which was organized by a ‘healthy aging’ coalition to bring new social opportunities to the older community. The trendy matchmaking process allowed these individuals to meet for a brief five minutes. When the time was up the organizer sounded a bell, signaling participants to move on to the next table. Each kept a tally of those they would like to contact later. If both parties were interested in each other, a follow up date would occur.

According to Loring, as a result of the heavy promotion of this unique event, combined with the intense local media buzz, “dozens of area seniors called to register, all willing to put themselves out there, to take stock of their aging bodies and still-hopeful hearts.”

“The film takes viewers where no documentary has gone before – directly into the lives of older singles who still yearn to be seen and understood, who still desire another’s touch, who seek a new chance of love,” says Loring. Unlike other recent documentaries exploring issues of aging, the film maker saw an “opportunity to break social and generational barriers by looking at the older participants not in terms of singular talents or specific communities, but through shared, human desires.”

For three months, Loring filmed without a crew. He was able to easily develop personal relationships with the senior speed daters “allowing candid stories to emerge by following their everyday routines,” he says.
Looking to Find That Perfect Match

Loring notes that some participants came seeking simple companionship, while others came looking for that special mate. Among the speed daters who appear in the film: An 81-year-old bodybuilding champ, divorced since his fifties, who still believes new love is possible; a skydiving widow who dulls her loss by pursuing younger men; a grandmother and online-dating addict searching the web for Mr. Right; a romantic 79-year-old who discards his portable oxygen for a sunset tango on the beach, a 1940s movie fanatic who escaped an abusive marriage, yet still seeks her ‘Fred and Ginger’ romance.

Janice Ledtke, 78, a resident of Webster, New York, a suburb of Rochester, remembers making the decision to participate in speed dating. After 38 years of being single following her divorce in 1976, she jumped at the chance to meet new people. “What did I have to lose,” says Ledtike, a former property management employee, who met dates over the years at singles groups or through being fixed up by friends.

“You never know who you just might meet,” remembers Ledtike, noting when her friends found out about her participation in the speed dating event and documentary, “they thought I was crazy, but it’s just another one of my adventures.”

Ledtke says she met a variety of personalities at the speed dating event. But her follow up dates with a film maker, a retired professor and an owner of a small insurance company went nowhere. “I was not necessarily looking to find the love of my life, but if it happened, it happened,” she adds, stressing that it was not the end of the world because she came away with a number of new friends.

Linda Sorrendino, 72, had many long-term relationships since her 1973 divorce. “I have many diamonds to prove this,” quips the resident of Victor, New York. Over the years, like Ledtke, she would meet people by attending singles groups or through friends.

Learning from a friend about the speed dating event, Sorrendino, a retired office clerk, immediately signed up. “You just never know. As to landing a relationship, “you just go with the flow,” she remarks.

As Sorrendino reflects on her speed dating experience and her late life relationships, she notes, “I don’t want to be with a decrepit old man, but I also don’t want to be with somebody a lot younger who looks better that I do and feels like he’s with an old lady.”

A Final Thought…

“The film’s message is so positive and encouraging,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “Watching these folks surely will make it easier for others to re-enter the dating scene. At the same time, there is a subtext that is very important: No one featured in the documentary seems desperate. Each has found a way to move on from divorce or loss of a spouse or partner. Will they find their storybook ending? I think the film makes it clear that there are no promises. But there’s a strong message that giving love another chance is not so intimidating – especially if you find some an organized group that puts you among people of similar age and circumstance.”

The documentary also will reveal to its broader audience that the desire for companionship and intimacy does not evaporate at some advanced specific age,” Connell added. “These feelings are not always easy for people to discuss with their children or grandchildren. Its great people get to see these folks take part in the speed-dating experience because in the accompanying interviews they reveal hopes and fears many hold inside. But I love the takeaway: ‘If something happens, that’s great. If not, I’ll still be okay.’”

Loring plans to work with AARP and other ‘healthy aging’ organizations across the country to bring older adults together in 25 cities next year at senior speed dating events. For more information go to theAgeofLoveMovie.com or email steven@theAgeofLoveMovie.com

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Overnight Vacations Popular with Aging Baby Boomers

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 1, 2014

As the nation slowly emerges from a severe economic downturn along with gas prices rising, a new AARP Bulletin Survey delves into travel planning of vacationing boomers. A phone survey, statistically sampling 76 million baby boomers sought, to shed light on their views on overnight vacations, specifically, trips taken away from home that usually lasted one night or longer.

According to the May 2014 report, “Boomers and Vacations: An AARP Bulletin Survey,” over 57 percent of the nation’s boomers say they are planning to take an overnight vacation in the next 12 months. Among those planning this overnight vacation, seven-in-ten (68%) responded they may take more than one overnight trip, while three-in-ten (29%) reported they are just planning to make one overnight excursion.

Getting Away for Short Vacations

The 19 page AARP report noted that almost half of those surveyed (47%), who are planning overnight vacations in the next 12 months, are planning one or two week vacations, while just one-third (34%) are planning to take longer trips, lasting over two weeks.

Overnight vacations can hit boomer vacationer’s right in their wallets, indicate the AARP report’s findings, with survey respondents noting they will budget a minimal of $1,000, up to a whopping $5,000 for an overnight vacation outing. The majority of those surveyed (56%) say that they plan to travel with their spouse or partner, 15 percent plan traveling with their child or children. Meanwhile, seventeen percent say they will go it alone. .

While two-thirds (64%) of vacationing boomers say they will travel to another state within the United States, twenty percent will travel throughout their home state, noted the AARP report. However, 19 percent of survey respondents say they will book vacations outside of the country, with Europe being found to be the most popular destination (38%) followed by Latin or South America (21%), Caribbean (13%), and Canada (10%).

As to motives taking overnight vacations, most respondents say “to see, connect, or spend time with family and/or friends (45%), or “for a pure fun, or relaxation (38%).

Balancing Work and Play

The AARP findings suggest that Boomers are active and looking for ways enjoy life,” Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell said. “We all know that staying active is important for both physical and mental health as we age. If this is a trend, I hope it builds and I think it will,” she says, noting that one of the reasons will be that AARP motivates people to be maintain active lifestyles – whether it’s an extended vacation or a day trip to a nearby attraction.

Connell believes that as boomers decide to work longer for the purpose of retirement security, they also realize that as they work longer and harder they have earned a break. “Working longer allows people to delay dipping into retirement savings. Many say that if that’s your plan, you actually can and should reward yourself and take that vacation and return to work refreshed.” she says.

“As to those Boomers who have ‘retired,’ I shouldn’t have to tell you that AARP encourages those people to get out and enjoy life,” says Connell.

“The AARP study certainly reinforces the fact that Boomers have a significant amount of discretionary income and that they are an important part of the economy. If the Boomers stayed home, the tourism industry would be is big trouble,” she observes.

Connell states that “Rhode Island is a great destination for people of all ages and I am sure that the local tourism promoters are aware of that. It’s very competitive out there when it comes to capturing Boomers, so the good news is that even attractive destinations such as Rhode Island offer travel discounts and incentives. People should take advantage, and I imagine the AARP survey reflects some of these opportunities to save, too.”

Rhode Island Tourism Officials Have Their Say

Carl G Richardson, Director, Branch Office Sales & Service, of AAA Southern New England, cites similarities in AARP’s report findings from his personal experiences in the travel industry. Just like the findings that 15% of Boomers are traveling with their child or children, “we’re seeing our members traveling with their grandchildren as well.”

Another finding as to the reason for travel also jumps out for Richardson. “When we conduct our Holiday Travel forecasts we see “visiting family or friends” as the number one reason members travel 50 miles or more away from home. AARP’s findings supports that point,” he says.

Mark Brodeur, Rhode Island’s Tourism Director with Commerce RI, sees boomers as a generation driving tourism to the Ocean State for more than three decades.

As the state’s main sales person and a boomer, Brodeur understand this demographic group, especially their buying power associated with them. “American Express Travel insights indicated that more than 50% of Rhode Island overnight visitors are 50 and above,” he says.

“Boomers are foodies where Rhode island’s varied and celebrated culinary scene fits right in with this demographics interest, says Brodeur, noting that they want fresh, farm or ocean to table creations in a unique atmosphere. “Rhode Island offers some for the country’s best food and foodie experiences. Walking tours, culinary museum, cooking classes, wine, brews and now distilled lavations,” he says…

Brodeur adds, “The boomer is active; walking, cycling, swimming, sailing, tennis. Whether you’re offshore or landside, Rhode Island offers the perfect soft adventure. He observes that the boomer generation is considered lifelong learners; they’re curious, very educated and intellectual. “Rhode Island is a classroom with Colonial to gilded age, industrial to pristine and natural. Audubon, art museums, historic societies and attractions offer educational experiences that are world class,” he says.

Robert Billington, President, of the Pawtucket-based Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, is a firm believer of overnight vacations, experimenting with the idea of seeing providing trips for Rhode Islanders in their home state. Over a decade ago, the Central Falls resident developed a tour, “Tour Rhode Island, There’s No Place Like Home,” one that attracted the attention of Boomers and seniors. “Over 1,200 persons returned, year after year, traveling to sites throughout the Ocean State in 24 motor coaches,” he says.

The tour gave Rhode Islander’s a chance to personally visit places in their home state they never saw, state’s Billington. “Our state has so much to offer visitors and even more to offer its residents but sometimes you have to be shown the beauty in your own back yard,” he adds.

Billington says, for Rhode Island Boomers, especially those outside of the state, the greatest thing Rhode Island offers to vacationers is its size. “You can enjoy the best of America within a1, 240 square miles drive…”

Planning Your Overnight Getaway

AARP’s newest tool to plan your overnight getaways (travel.aarp.org/weekend-getaways), includes itineraries curated by Fodor’s Travel. The collection recommends local escapes less than three hours from home, including where to eat, shop, and stay, from popular cities including Denver, Washington, D.C. and more locations nationwide.

As detailed in a recent release, AARP Travel’s range of travel tools and features include:

● Trip Finder — a fun, smart and visual series of questions to deliver ideas and recommendations for destinations — including some unexpected ones;

● Map Explorer — a detailed street-level interactive map that includes attractions, restaurants, hotels, local color and reviews for each destination;

● My Trips — a personal page where users can save and organize trip ideas, itineraries and related articles in one place and add to or edit them over multiple visits;

● Articles and Destinations — travel tips from AARP Travel Ambassador Samantha Brown, articles specifically geared toward the 50+ traveler and information about hundreds of domestic and international locations; and

● Book Trips — booking tools provided through AARP’s relationships with
Expedia and Liberty Travel and directly to hotels, and rental cars.

Data for AARP’s “Boomers” and Vacation Plan survey were gathered by a random-digit dial telephone omnibus survey fielded March 5-March 30, 2014, using a national representative sample of 1,410 respondents ages 49 to 67 (Boomers). Of those, a total of 907 respondents are under age 60 and a total of 461 are age 60+, and 42 respondents refused to report their actual age.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.